Your teenager may think it’s a bit of a joke but that’s just the thing – they probably don’t ‘think’ it through. Jo Hemmings says sexting isn’t harmless fun. Here she discusses the implications of pressing ‘send’
Recent surveys have revealed that up to 60 per cent of young teenagers regularly indulge in sexting. For those who may not be aware of what the practice involves, it is the sending and sharing of sexually provocative messages and pictures from mobile phones and computers, via text, email and social networking sites such as Facebook. In a recent study of texting, three-quarters of girls who had sent explicit messages to boys have had their supposedly private messages shared with other teens without their consent.
Much as you may be reluctant to acknowledge it, these figures would indicate that there is a fair chance that your teen – and possibly your pre-teen – is sending and/or receiving messages and photos of a deeply sexually explicit nature. Often far more traumatic for girls than boys, sexting is a form of harassment and bullying and it is up to you to show your child the error of their ways.
For a mature adult, sending sexually provocative messages can be flirtatious, teasing and fun. For a child it is disturbing, distressing and has been shown to provoke thoughts of suicide in those girls who feel they simply can’t refuse the requests that come through. While sexting is not necessarily indicative of wider sexual behaviour, the peer pressure behind it causes significant and long lasting trauma to those that get involved. Additionally, it is actually illegal to share images of under 18s in this way.
Monitoring the computer at home or putting some sort of restriction on mobile phone usage may help deter your child from sexting, but given how widespread the practice has become, it is better to address the subject with your child, whether you have any genuine cause for concern or not. You need to be able to explain just how damaging to self-esteem the practice is and that those who encourage the sharing of these images and messages are foolish, exploitative and lack any real integrity. It’s important to encourage your child to have the sort of self-respect that allows her to say no, if only on the basis that she has more dignity than to share explicit images of her body with virtual strangers. And that the people who make these requests are misguided and lack any self-respect of their own. And, quite apart from the other psychological risks involved, sexting is committing a criminal offence that could get both parties into serious trouble.
Easy access to internet pornography has undoubtedly encouraged sexting, and it is always wise to ensure that there is a filtering system on your home computer. However, we live in a world where such images are only a mouse click away and children are naturally curious about sexuality. They are learning to come to terms with their own changing bodies, emotions and hormones, which is a natural part of growing up. We need to empower our children to make healthy decisions for themselves, so simply forbidding sexting is unlikely to put a complete stop to it – and indeed for some children may simply encourage that natural teenage rebellion.
Don’t interrogate your child, but introduce the subject as part of your responsibility to discuss healthy sexual practice as they begin to mature. Encourage them to talk about their concerns without fear of anger or judgement. Use an empathetic approach – if they are forwarding explicit images of other people, how would they feel if it were them? Or they were to be seen by people outside of their own age group, Paedophiles for example? – many of whom use social networking sites to pretend that they are an adolescent for this very reason.
Technology rather than a sexual revolution has fuelled the rise in sexting and with it goes a personal responsibility to learn self-respect and dignity. But also to understand that what seems like some private fun is in very real danger of going viral or getting into the hands of others that might exploit these images.
It’s worth pointing out that once it’s ‘out there’ you can’t get it back. What appears harmless now may indeed cause distress and embarrassment or worse later.
Like so many subjects involving your child’s emerging sexual maturity and independence, communication and empathy are far more influential than threats, forbidding your child to do something or indeed turning a blind eye to the issues.
Have you experienced problems with your kids sexting? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the problem. Please share this feature with other parents who might be interested because forewarned is fore-armed.